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AG Sessions, Gardner take center stage at Denver conservative summit

Author: Joey Bunch - June 8, 2018 - Updated: June 10, 2018

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a point during his speech at the Western Conservative Summit, Friday, June 8, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Denver to talk about President Barack Obama, not President Donald Trump, it seemed Friday as he took center stage at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver.

He spoke of the corrections the Trump administration had made, especially on religious liberty and Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

Sessions appeared Friday as the two-day Denver conference opened, a day after he filed court documents in Texas to withdraw the Department of Justice’s legal defense of Obamacare, including the requirement that people have health insurance and provisions that guarantee access to health insurance regardless of any medical conditions.

He boasted of that position Friday in Denver. “It’s a rare step, but one I felt was necessary, when it comes to the law,” Sessions said.

He promised, “We will be active in that litigation, and upholding the Constitution and protecting the rule of law is the foundation of everything we do in the Department of Justice.”

The former senator from Alabama also supported Jack Phillips, the Lakewood baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012 on religious grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court supported Phillips’ rights to do so in a ruling Monday, although its narrow ruling mostly focused on the process used to sanction the baker.

“He stood for his beliefs, almost alone at times, it seemed, and under great pressure,” Sessions said.

He added, citing using terms used by Obama and Hillary Clinton that were derided by conservatives during Trump’s 2016 campaign, “Under this administration, religious Americans are not going to be treated as an afterthought, as deplorables, as bitter clingers anymore.”

Sessions left the spotlight in Washington for the warm limelight in Denver for the ninth annual summit. The ticketed event started Friday morning and continues Saturday at the Colorado Convention Center.

Sessions, the one-time close ally of the president, has had a rocky relationship with Trump since he recused himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election. Trump has been publicly critical of the former senator from Alabama for recusing himself.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Sessions did not disclose his two meetings with a Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, even though he was asked about any contacts.

Sessions in Denver made no mention of Russia or any of the pending investigations into the administration. Instead, he spoke about poor decisions the Obama administration had made.

In each of its nine years, the summit, put on by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, has attracted conservative superstars, political insiders and a galaxy of right-wing media figures.

Embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt is scheduled to speak Friday night.

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Colorado’s U.S. Cory Gardner speaks Friday morning at the Western Conservative Summit. (Photo courtesy of the Centennial Institute via YouTube.)

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma, spoke Friday morning, a day after introducing legislation in Washington to help protect states that have legalized marijuana, despite federal law that still deems it illegal.

The Centennial Institute is one of the leading critics of legalized pot in Colorado.

Radio host Craig Silverman, who introduced Gardner Friday morning, led off by talking about his “double date” with liberal U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Friday, when they made a joint media appearance in Washington promoting the bill.

Gardner made no mention of the pot bill, however. He commended Republicans in Washington for putting Colorado judge Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court, “the strong leadership of President Trump,” as well as cutting taxes and regulators. “And we ain’t done yet,” he said to applause.

He pivoted to the November election and the GOP’s favorite saw, the hostile media.

“We have to keep the Senate,” Gardner said. “The media knows this. The media is afraid of this, and that’s why they want us to fail.”

He said the most dangerous thing in the 2016 election was presidential candidate’s Bernie Sanders’ “normalization of socialism.” He didn’t mention Russian meddling in the election.

The conservative summit each year courts controversy, or at least thumbs its nose at liberals. Besides Trump administration officials, gun rights are on this year’s agenda.

Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv is scheduled to address the conservatives Friday night, and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch is the featured attraction Saturday night in the Mile High Ballroom.

“We’re bold in our positions, and we’re unapologetic,” Jeff Hunt, leader of the Centennial Institute, told Colorado Politics this week.

He said Friday morning, “The Western Conservative Summit continues to grow in its influence every year.”

He encouraged applause for the U.S. Supreme Court decision this week for Jack Phillips, the Lakewood baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same -sex couple in 2012, citing his religious freedom. The high court said …….

Indivisible Front Range Resistance, Never Again Colorado, student-led groups and other activists announced Friday they will protest outside the summit on Saturday.

All four Republicans in the June 26 primary for governor are slated to make their pitch to the crowd. Doug Robinson and Walker Stapleton spoke Friday morning. Greg Lopez and Victor Mitchell are expected Saturday. A straw poll is being taken again this year.

In last year’s straw poll, George Brauchler, the 18th Judicial District attorney, led the vote with 39 percent. Brauchler dropped out of the governor’s race and is the lone GOP candidate for attorney general this year.

Brauchler spoke at the summit Friday morning. He talked about how state attorneys general had pushed back on the Obama administration on clean water and climate-change rules.

“Today we see a president who is willing to give back to states the ability to make decisions for themselves,” Brauchler said.

Mitchell came in second in the gubernatorial straw poll last year with 20 percent, followed by early Trump supporter Steve Barlock with 7 percent. Stapleton had 6 percent and Robinson got 5 percent. They all spoke at the event last year, except Stapleton, who didn’t announce his candidacy until September, a story broken by Colorado Politics.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.